With 51 seconds left in the first half Monday night, Sam Bradford set up in the shotgun and stared at eight New Orleans Saints defenders crowding the line of scrimmage. Bradford looked to his right, motioned tight end Kyle Rudolph closer to right tackle Mike Remmers and told slot receiver Adam Thielen to take several steps in toward the line.
The Saints brought six defenders after Bradford, but with Rudolph and running back Dalvin Cook in to block, the Vikings had plenty of protection to give Bradford time. And when Cook’s step in front of Bradford froze Saints cornerback P.J. Williams for a split-second, Bradford had a wide-open throwing lane to find Thielen over the middle for what turned into a 44-yard gain.
“When they presented that coverage, and Sam made the check, I knew I was going to have a chance to get open,” Thielen said. “They brought full pressure, and it was man-to-man, one-on-one across the board.”
The play turned a drive that began with the aim of running out the clock into the Vikings’ second touchdown march of the quarter. And it showcased a quarterback in thorough command of an offense that’s been calibrated to his strengths.
For just the second time in his career, Bradford had an offseason free of rehab from an injury or the adjustment period that comes with a new offensive coordinator. He is in his third different city with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur — the man whom Bradford said last month “essentially taught me the game” — and he now has 16 starts as well as a full offseason of experience with core players Thielen, Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph.
His synergy with Shurmur and his fluency in the offense extends onto the field, when the 29-year-old quarterback is able to make checks and adjustments like he did Monday night.
“Pat’s always given me the freedom to do things at the line of scrimmage,” Bradford said. “[It goes back to] my comfort level, being more comfortable in an offense and recognizing when a called play might not be against the defense that we’re seeing, or the defense that they’re showing might present an opportunity to get to another play. It allows me to maybe recognize things a little bit quicker.”
The process of building in checks and audibles begins during the week, when Bradford and Shurmur have frequent conversations about what will work against a certain opponent.
“The offensive coordinator has to be able to communicate with [the quarterback] on a daily basis,” Shurmur said last month. “And it’s got to be fluid — ‘I like this, here’s why we’re doing this, this is a good way to get the ball to this guy, we need to run the ball here, maybe you could check out of this.’ Those types of conversations can really only be had with guys that trust one another, and I certainly trust Sam and his judgment.”
During the week, Bradford said, he’s building a small portfolio of ideas that would work against certain coverages.
“If you don’t really have an idea, and you’re like, ‘I’ll just figure it out at the line,’ I think that’s a little more difficult,” he said. “I like to have a couple of ideas for each coverage.”
Bradford said the occasions where he completely changes a play at the line of scrimmage, though, are “very rare.
“Honestly, you hope that you call the right play,” he said. “And that’s why you watch film, and that’s why you prepare and why we game plan, hoping that what we’re calling is going to work. The goal is not to get up there and change every play. That’s going to slow you down. The goal is to only do that when you need to.”
The flexibility Bradford is afforded, though, stands in some contrast with the Vikings’ recent past, when former offensive coordinator Norv Turner often kept a tighter rein on his play calls at the line of scrimmage.
After Dwight Freeney’s strip sack of Teddy Bridgewater on a slow-developing play sealed a 23-20 Cardinals win over the Vikings in Dec. 2015, Bridgewater said he did not have the option to check out of Turner’s play call. When asked about Bridgewater’s comments a couple of days later, Turner retorted, “It’s a good play. There’s no reason to check out of it.”
Even route adjustments and protection changes like the ones Bradford made Monday night, though, can help the Vikings be more productive. They provided a springboard for the offense in the first win of the season.
“I thought Pat called a great game tonight,” Bradford said Monday. “He had checks and things for me to get in and out of, and it gave us an opportunity to take advantage of what we were seeing.”